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That's Nice Honey
Learning to race while my heart is with Mom
The days when she left the hospital were the worst.
Home again, temporarily propped up by modern medicine, my mind would tick with concern for when Mom’s vital levels would inevitably spike back toward danger. It was a suspense we were supposed to ignore with optimism, but hoping for the best doesn’t ward off the unspoken worst.
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And so, as I approached the Grandma’s Marathon in June, a ripe opportunity for fast racing, I felt nothing.
I put in many miles and moved through the motions of race prep, but as I tapered to race I found my competitive reserves were empty. I posted online about the athletic chance at hand. Maybe writing about past competitions could stoke a fire in my heart. I hoped. I wrote about road racing because I could not, or would not, allow my heart to write about the only race that mattered: her oncological pursuit of those fucking tumors.
In western medicine it’s what we do — we zoom into specifics.
We make a plan.
We set dates, prescribe pills, and outline intended outcomes.
And then we hope.
So much hope.
All the while, I’d landed in Minnesota pretending to be ready to race. I’d pulled out new shoes, rolled out honed hamstrings, and pinned on a crisp race bib, but as I stood alone examining my uniform in the full-length hotel mirror, I understood that I’d arrived lacking the one thing you truly need to compete: the will to fight. I didn’t speak of this aloud because admission of such concern might have implied internal defeat. I didn’t dare create a signal of doubt that could hurt my mother’s already beleaguered heart.
And so I stepped to a starting line along Lake Superior appreciative of its beauty but, detached from its opportunity. Like a first date where the person is great but you feel zero spark, I admired the downhill course and cool tailwind breeze without experiencing even a flutter of my competitive heart.
Of course, you cannot feign engagement over 26.2.
Though I embarked with optimism, as the weight of the pace began to tug I saw that I lacked the conviction to pull back. Once I detached from racing the entire day felt less dense, unburdened by the weight of competition. Understanding that the quickest way to get downtown was just to jog there, I took the time to high-five children and wave to fans as I jogged into town.
Shuffling across the finish, I collected my things, called her, and cried.
There’s a delicious emptiness earned from a hard-fought race. A thick satisfaction formed from scraping the bottom of your ability. As I sat on the curb with my phone held to my salt-covered cheek I was consumed by the sick feeling of the opposite. Nauseated by the endurance ability that still sat inside of me that I had not willed myself to let out.
I lamented to her that I felt like a phony.
Having posted thousands of words over dozens of essays about the intrinsic value of giving a full effort, I had not. She consoled me, comforted my soft sobs, and helped me smile again as only a mother can.
Afterward, she texted,
“Honey, people don’t love you because of what you did, but because of who you are and how you see things. Embrace that. It also shows you what you said, “the marathon doesn’t owe you anything.” I’m proud of you so much.”
With that, a sigh, and a beer with running friends, I moved toward a summer hopeful for steady mileage and her steady recovery.
She lived two more months.
In the movies, there’s a moment after a bomb goes off where everything is muted, all the characters hear is ringing. That’s what September sounded like: garbled tones drowned out by surging emotions.
Coasting my car across the bridge onto picturesque Sauvie Island, our local marathon training ground, I knew my body didn’t contain much push to employ in this workout, but if I had any shot of performing at the California International Marathon in 12 weeks, I would need to attempt to begin moving through the motions until when I might refind physical fortitude. After all, how hard could 2-mile efforts at marathon pace be?
Very hard, in fact.
Interestingly, it wasn't the speed that got me.
And my stride turned over along these ripening pumpkin patch fields actually felt strong.
It was something else.
Attempts to exert squeezed my body exactly where it was being hammered each day. Though a distance runner for decades, my body was getting rung by an unfamiliar force: grief.
Fatigue had been twisting my mind and pulsing through my veins hour by hour. The energy necessary to push along at this pace was absent.
How fortunate I’ve been! I smirked with appreciation for the many years that I’d taxed my body for sport. Despite peak endurance fitness, the emotional toll of sleepless nights and cortisol bombs triggered by each recollection of mom had left my body incapable.
Eventually, thankfully, my eyes began opening to new days without fresh tears. Maybe I was ready to get back to work…
As an endurance athlete, I adore the stress/rest cycle that we employ toward fitness. If only grieving proved so linear.
“Maybe I should just skip it.” The dreaded competitive decision swirled through my mind as I attempted to make sense of my current state. Three weeks from one of my favorite races, I was stuck in a morass. Scattered due to Mom’s absence, I still didn’t feel right but, no matter how much I tried to deny it, my stride felt strong. The work hadn’t been perfect, but it was mostly complete. Training offered me the familiar balance of a well-tuned instrument accustomed to repetitive play. Miles after miles of use, my stride could still play.
I love this, I remembered
I NEED this, I realized.
Shit. You know not to do that. I reprimanded myself. Having lost Mom in August, and paused my professional work to plan her memorial, I’d now done the exact thing that I always caution runners to avoid: placing all of my heart’s happiness on running. I’d mistakenly done the thing that I’ve frequently proven almost always ends in sadness.
“You know better...” I sighed.
But I couldn’t help it. When your whole world feels like it’s spinning, attempting to use running as an anchor is too tempting.
Shuffling through the morning darkness toward the bright lights of the warm-up area the silhouetted hand of a race volunteer held up to confirm I belonged there. And though I pointed to my bib reading “BROMKA” to prove that I’d been accepted, I honestly had the same question. What was I doing here?
Preparing to race here felt like tracing my hand along the outlined shape of my former self. Standing at the starting line of a marathon, the miles ahead of you are just a distance – it’s how you see them that determines the way your day will unfold.
Three years prior, this same stretch of road was the epicenter of my ego. Back then I was revving with aggression, chomping at the bit to use each mile in front of me to achieve the audacious dream of qualifying for the Olympic Trials Marathon. Let me at it! Had been my only impulse. Each split had been a checkmark toward the goal that I’d sought for so long that pursuing it felt like home. It was intense, exciting, and addictive.
And I hadn’t had anything stopping me.
My training had been flawless.
My inspiration had been true.
My emotional safety had been sound. Filled with love in pursuit of amateur marathoning dreams, I had endeavored without concern beyond the outcome. I’d been so filled with fight that day that I’d arrived at the same intersection eager to tackle each mile.
Now I peered down the road gripped with an acute fear of the danger ahead. Each mile would take more from me than I was ready to give, and none of them would move me toward what I wanted most, being back with her.
So instead I smiled. I greeted friends and wished competitors well. I still hadn’t figured out how to tackle this effort, but that didn’t keep the gun from firing.
Bang! it went, and I was off.
Gratitude washed over me as I watch the Trials hopefuls drift ahead into the blue morning hour.
As the hills rolled out in front of us I find myself slotted in among other men eager to work together. Hearing two trade introductions nearby, I offer mine,
“Hey, I’m Peter Bromka.”
“Good to meet you Bromka!” I’d suspected aspiring marathoners of this pace might know me, so there was no sense in being shy.
“I really appreciate your writing,” He offers. “It’s given me hope that I could also break 220, ‘cause I also haven’t broken 15.” His colloquial reference to time barriers acknowledged that men here, traveling on this pavement, at this pace, make meaning from the same digits.
“That was a different body on a different day.” I reflect inside. I cherish those accomplishments, but they won’t help propel me today. I need to find fresh inspiration to will myself toward Sacramento.
As the pace settles in the high 5:20s I welcome the familiar marathon rhythm, the sensation of pushing, yet not too much. Urgency without rushing. Alongside my teammate Chris Yates, we’ve committed to checking our egos and finding the pace.
“Let’s let it come to us.” We’d agreed.
There’s that dreaded three. I can’t fucking stand it, but I also can’t do much about it. Having spent years floating along in the 5:10s and 5:20s, seeing a 5:30 this early on feels like a poke in the eye.
“Enough of that,” I decide, and swear of split checking for now.
Passing beneath the half-marathon banner I’m injected with the adrenaline of rock music and cheering. Though a quick glance at the clock reveals a respectable split, I’m well aware that to double it I’d need to be packing heapfuls of fight that I do not have.
Turning into the soothing warmth of a winter sunrise, my mind peels into two parallel paths. Though my feet continue to turn down the slightly damp road, my heart drifts back to her bedside.
Sees her stare.
How Mom’s pupils arced open remarkably even as his pulse began to slow. The smooth road ahead affords my mind the safety to consume itself with our last moments together. Having read accounts of heroic championships won after a tragic loss, I’m aware of the possibility for channeling grief into athletic greatness, as well as understand how that will not be me today.
My form on a metronome, head slightly tilted back, I catch myself staring off east into the cold sunrise. “Hey Mom,” I mouth silently.
Cruising up alongside Yates,
I want to tell him that I’m hurting.
I want to say to him that I miss her.
I want to voice feelings that are bubbling up inside of me as my heart thumps along at marathon pace. But such emotions have no place on this course today.
Protect your heart. I advise inside.
And then again, Protect your heart. A phrase that I’d never previously considered is now emerging in my mind on repeat.
Protect your heart.
As I attempt to find a faster pace it is clear that doing so would demand courage I can’t fathom. I feel unsafe and exposed by this distance that I used to know so well. Each surge invites questions, and as the effort increases the insistence for answers amplifies.
Why am I here if not to run fast? What am I doing on these streets if not prepared to compete?
Yet as the miles roll on, clicking closer to the race’s climax, I realize that maybe just being here is the point of today. Maybe covering the distance is actually enough for now.
“Stay with it Bromka! Stay engaged!” My coach Mario yells with an understanding nod at Mile 20. I gesture back subtly and am off into the final miles. Having accepted that she is my focus today, I summon a smile, find my smoothest stride possible, and attempt to glide into town on appreciation.
I wish I could say these miles were, “For her,” but she didn’t care. Not a runner, just a casually elegant athlete who could drive a golf ball or sprint a block without practice, she never needed me to run fast. She hadn’t cared about speed. Her only intent had been my willingness to strive. “That’s nice honey.” I imagine her amusing me. A mother’s knowing tone for her child’s hopes when all she wishes for is their happiness.
She only cared about my love. As I spoke about sport, she focused on my practiced willingness to try. That honed ability to keep seeking even when it’s scary. Though Dad is who engrained my love of the game, it was Mom who modeled the emotional willingness to aspire with abandon. Who taught me to hold my heart open to possibility even as every impulse flinches with fear, discomfort, and doubt.
What is racing other than the willingness to be repeatedly told "NO!" by your body and still having the heart to ask again? That was what she admired in me. And what I hope to once again harness for her.
But not today.
I still miss her too much. My mind is still too saturated with sadness. My heart is still too fractured by emotion to be held out in pursuit of more speed.
"I'll never know what it feels like to run like you," Mom remarked during our last morning together. "But I imagine it's something like these singers feel." Pressing play on a video, she insisted that I watch. Tears rolling down her cheeks, “Look at their arms!” she implored me to witness their spirit. Tears then rolling down mine, I comforted her, appreciating that she had identified the tumultuous beauty her son sees in running a marathon at full speed.
Entering the final blocks, my mind clicks play on a highlight reel of my racing life. These streets are where I’ve burnt so brightly. This turn is where I’ve realized many dreams. That turn is where I realized that I’d lost others.
And finally, gliding into the finish.
This spot of pavement, where I have at times hugged joyfully, gasped exhaustedly, and screamed excitedly – will today be the place for me to celebrate her gratefully. This spot of pavement, the end of 26.2, where emotions flow freely, and raw truths are briefly on full display.
Spotting Dad, I lean across the cold gray barrier, arm slumped around his neck, I smile and sob.
"What’s wrong? You did so well! You seemed so happy!”
"I just miss her so much."
I had wondered, how would I race to my fullest while lacking conviction.
I never found out.
Because I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, at least not on that day. Unable to summon the will to compete, to use the streets in the ways I had before, I came to see that they could also be used for something else.
To move. If not faster, then forward. Used to process the past and begin to summon the will to build anew. Before the race, aiming to compete had felt pointless relative to her absence. How could I care so deeply about something so trivial?
But having moved through my first marathon without Mom I see that such endurance pursuits don’t have to distract from the grief of her loss. In fact, these moments, when my heart is humming along filled with excitement mixed with fear mixed with doubt, may actually be the best way to stay connected to her.
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